President Donald Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un yielded very little in terms of firm denuclearization commitments from North Korea. It delivered nothing on human rights. In fact, the non-binding joint communique marking the summit didn’t even mention human rights.
After the meeting, when pressed by Fox News about North Korea’s atrocious human rights record, Trump said that while Kim may have done some bad things, “a lot of other people [have] done some really bad things.” When asked about Kim’s reputation for brutality, Trump said he “can’t speak to that,” focusing instead on the signing of “an incredible agreement.”
These “bad things” were the subject of a thorough 2014 United Nations commission of inquiry report that painstakingly revealed large-scale cruelty and abuse.
Kim’s police and security forces use violence and punishments to create a climate of fear designed to pre-empt any challenge to the government and the ruling party’s 70-year hold on power. As many as 120,000 inmates languish in political prison camps. Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished.
The leadership also uses access to food, education, health care and job opportunities as key levers to control the population, favoring people whose support it considers crucial to maintain power over those it deems unreliable and expendable.
Over 150 North Koreans who have fled the country told Human Rights Watch that virtually all North Koreans are pressed into forced labor. In the mid-2000s, after the son of the head of a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin city, North Hamgyong province, finished his engineering degree at a prestigious university in Pyongyang, the government selected him to work at a nuclear technology facility. His family had one day to celebrate his graduation before he reported to work.
“We all smiled and repeated over and over how proud we were of him, and the greatness he would bring to the [North Korean] leadership,” his father told us. “What we kept to ourselves was we knew in reality it was a dangerous job; he was becoming a slave without a choice, and we worried we would never see him alive again […] I had already been forced to work without any compensation for over a decade, but that meant not only being exploited but losing our son forever. We never heard anything back from him, and we didn’t dare ask.”
“We knew in reality it was a dangerous job; he was becoming a slave without a choice, and we worried we would never see him alive again.”
The U.N. commission of inquiry found that crimes against humanity are essential components of Kim’s continued authoritarian rule, which “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.” The commission urged the U.N. Security Council to refer North Korea’s crimes to the International Criminal Court ― a last resort when there is zero chance of national justice ― and to adopt targeted sanctions against those responsible for grave human right abuses.
The U.S. government has acknowledged the barbarity of the power structure over which Kim presides. In December, Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, told the Security Council that the “systematic human rights violations and abuses of the North Korean government are more than the cause of its people’s suffering. They are a means to a single end ― keeping the Kim Jong Un regime in power.”
These abuses are not an inconvenience that can be swept under the rug in the name of security. Indeed, Haley also warned that “any country that does not take care of its people ends up in conflict.”
The situation is so dire that the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on human rights grounds against Kim and other high-level officials in his government. By law, these cannot be lifted without improvement in the human rights situation.
“These abuses are not an inconvenience that can be swept under the rug in the name of security.”
North Korea has exposed its vulnerability to pressure in the face of negative attention on its human rights record, showing that pressure can have an impact. In the wake of the U.N.’s damning report, North Korea went on the defensive, engaging in unprecedented ways in key diplomatic hubs to deflect attention from its atrocious record.
These tactics, while often clumsy and heavy-handed, were a remarkable shift from the Kim government’s decade-long defiance of U.N. calls to improve the human rights situation. This engagement did not result in a transformational change in behavior, but it did signal Pyongyang’s sensitivity to the world’s opinion of its human rights record. This is valuable leverage, and the U.S. government should use it.
The U.S. could use its current diplomatic engagement with Kim to insist on concrete benchmarks to improve rights on the ground. These include pressing Kim’s government to take immediate steps to dismantle political prison camps and release all of those detained because of their political profile. The North Korean government should also address poor conditions and abuses in the country’s other detention and prison facilities, by, for example, allowing visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
North Korea should grant access to key U.N. human rights monitors, including the U.N. special rapporteur for North Korea and the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. It should also open discussions with the U.N. and other international organizations about allowing a U.N. presence in North Korea to help with capacity building, development, and growth of nongovernmental groups, media, and political organizations.
This is not only an urgent matter of morality; there is a practical reason for the U.S. to make human rights a priority as it seeks a nuclear deal. A nuclear agreement with an unreformed totalitarian regime could be inherently unstable and unverifiable. Instead of treating North Korea’s human rights situation as a dirty secret, the U.S. government should be positioning human rights front and center in its relations with North Korea.
The U.S. should be aware that offering to shield Kim and members of his government from scrutiny over their human rights record would only further entrench and strengthen Kim’s grip on power and pave the way for continuing his government’s abusive practices.
“A nuclear agreement with an unreformed totalitarian regime could be inherently unstable and unverifiable.”
Trump’s failure to press Kim on his treatment of his own people may be part of a broader retreat signaled by the U.S. decision to withdraw from the U.N.’s human rights body earlier this week, which was a self-defeating move that sidelines the government’s influence in global efforts to protect human rights. Whatever the reason, it is a tactical error to ignore the enormous question of human rights in these nuclear negotiations.
Kim has indicated that he wants to come in from the cold and engage with the rest of the international community. The U.S. government should make clear to him that a deal on weapons proliferation is only part of the package, and that if he wants to rejoin the world he needs to bring his people along with him.
Param-Preet Singh is associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.